As of this moment, government officials in 11 countries are banned from running TikTok on their government-issued phones. Countries include the US, Canada, Denmark, Belgium, UK, New Zealand, Norway, France, the Netherlands and Poland. In addition, employees of the European Commission and the European Parliament had to delete the app. This raises two questions.
First, why do politicians and high-ranking officials in democracies scroll like zombies through dance madness, stupid pet videos, feeling “bonita” and things you can do with smeared lipstick?
And second, why did these governments take so long? After all, it’s never been a secret that TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a Chinese tech giant based in Beijing. It’s also no secret that all corporations in the People’s Republic of China are bowing to Xi Jinping’s will. Anything that TikTok learns about its users may eventually become known to the Chinese regime, right down to Matt Hancock’s dance routines.
Even Donald Trump understood this, which is why he launched a half-hearted attempt to “order” ByteDance to sell TikTok to a US company within 90 days. Like most Trump initiatives, this one was dead when it arrived. But the political impetus to “do something about TikTok” has peaked under the Biden administration, leading last week to TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew, was dragged before Congress to convince lawmakers that while ByteDance might own TikTok, it doesn’t call the shots.
It was a tough sale and Chew didn’t close the deal. His line was that TikTok had a plan – “Project Texas” – to store US users’ data in Texas. Given that it’s hard to imagine an American data archive that hasn’t been penetrated by Chinese hackers, this did not reassure anyone. More importantly, when an official Chinese spokesman said during the hearing that his government would “strongly oppose” any forced sale of TikTok, it was clear that Chew was the monkey and not the organ grinder in this story.
So we can expect political pressure to ban TikTok to increase until the associated rhetoric meets demographic and possibly electoral reality. It’s one thing to stop government officials from zombie scrolling, but more than 500 million Gen Z and Gen Y kids are addicted to the app and are likely to be angry if their online fixes are denied by boomers whose economic policies contradict theirs Ever dashed hopes of owning a home. And who knows? – One day these disaffected cohorts might even go to the polling stations and vote.
A key element of the US strategy is to deny China digital technology dominance
Similar considerations could give legislators in other policy areas pondering a blanket ban on TikTok. But for the US at least, the app is a sideshow in a much bigger game. The country’s rulers are gripped by hegemonic panic — increasingly shaken by the emergence of China as a rival superpower determined to reshape the US-dominated post-war world order. And they are determined to prevent that from happening.
A key element of the US strategy is to deny China digital technology dominance. The legislative tool to achieve this goal is the Restrict (Restricting the Emergence of Security Threats that Risk Information and Communications Technology) Act, a bill on the way through Congress. The bill goes well beyond banning TikTok or sanctioning Huawei. It empowers the President and Executive Branch (particularly the US Department of Commerce) to act swiftly with legal authorization from Congress, avoiding the fiasco of Trump’s previous attempt to ban TikTok and WeChat.
The bill’s goals are surprisingly broad: “To authorize the Secretary of Commerce to review and prohibit certain transactions between persons in the United States and foreign adversaries and for other purposes.” The list of technologies includes almost everything that falls under the umbrella term ” digital” could enumerate. Unusually in today’s fragmented US politics, the bill has strong bipartisan support and the White House backs it. So it should become law very soon. If that’s the case, says Kevin Xu, an astute observer of these things, it’s game over for any Chinese tech companies looking to do business in the US.
All of this puts TikTok in more context. But as it happens, there are good public health reasons to ban the app – particularly its pathologically addictive properties and its ultra-detailed monitoring of its users. When in doubt, just watch your teenage kids when they’re at it: it’s basically Instagram on steroids. But if we ban TikTok, shouldn’t we also ban all social media apps that rely on algorithmic curation for their revenue? Now there is Really interesting idea.
• John Naughton chairs advisory Board of Minderoo Center for Technology and Democracy at Cambridge University